Nurses' Day: Getting personal with patients

Michael Ayeni was the Balestier midfielder in the late 1990s and early 2000. When he got older, he decided to move into nursing. He started his nursing practice in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) but switched over to Psychiatric Nursing in 2002. He specialises in working with people with mental retardation of all ages and always have good rapport with his patients.
PHOTO: Nurses' Day: Getting personal with patients

Football player turns psych nurse

Standing at 1.82m, Nigeria-born Michael Ayeni used to cut a formidable figure on the football pitch as an S-League player for Balestier Central in 1999.

Today, the former midfielder, 41, cuts the same imposing figure in the psychiatric ward of the National University Hospital (NUH) as a nurse manager.

"I have been here since May and loving every minute of it," he told The New Paper.

Mr Ayeni went to the US in 2000 to continue his studies after playing for Balestier.

"I played football because I was good at it. But after getting injured several times, I started thinking about my future," he said.

Armed with a business administration degree, Mr Ayeni decided on a second one in physiotherapy. He packed up his family and left to pursue that dream.

Coming from a science-inclined family - his brother is a psychiatrist and sister a botanist - he said it was only natural that having played football, he'd take up physiotherapy.

"Changing it midway to nursing was also easy for me," Mr Ayeni said.

"In the US, we are allowed to work and study, or work at several jobs at the same time. So I applied to work at a mental institution."

He found he liked nursing and was able to develop a rapport with patients.

After his course, Mr Ayeni was assigned first to the intensive care unit, then the geriatrics ward. But after nine months, he asked for a transfer to the psychiatric ward.

"Because of my experience while in college, I was able to relate to the patients in the mental ward," he said

He worked in that ward until last year, when he moved back here to be with his wife, a Singaporean, 11-year-old son and four-year-old daughter.

"They moved back from the US in 2008 while I continued to work there," he said, adding that missing them was another reason for his return.

When asked if patients were intimidated by him because of his build, Mr Ayeni said: "Not really".

"When you work with patients you are taking care of, the benefits work both ways. You must always remember that patients are people and not numbers. If you treat them as people, then they would most often treat you as one too," he said.

Mr Ayeni's love for football never waned. While in the US, he got his certification to coach kids and youth. Now, he spends the weekend coaching children and playing recreational football.

"Now that I'm older, I'd just be walking on the pitch and leave the running to the younger ones," he laughed.

She cares for the dying

Her dying patient's last wish: To see her youngest daughter getting married.

Knowing the old woman could not hold out until the actual day, palliative care nurse Sim Lai Kiow, 57, arranged for the wedding to be held by her hospital bedside.

The patient died three days later.

"It was very heartwarming. As a mother myself, I could relate to how she would want to see the momentous occasion. It was good closure for her," said Madam Sim, who works with the Department of Geriatric Medicine at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH).

Madam Sim has two grown-up sons.

While most nurses focus on helping patients on the road to recovery, Madam Sim has been accompanying hers on their last journey for the past 12 years.

For that, Madam Sim received the President's Award for Nurses last night from President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the Istana.

"Even though I'm honoured, I still feel I don't deserve this award. There are so many nurses out there also in palliative care," she said.


Madam Sim was spurred to become a palliative care nurse after her mother died within two months of being diagnosed with advanced cancer in 2001.

"We were spending so much time looking for a cure that we neglected to spend my mother's last moments with her," Madam Sim said. Also, when a doctor expressed his surprise that as a nurse she did not know anything about end-of-life care, it upset her enough to take on a career in palliative care.

In 2002, she became the first palliative care nurse at Alexandra Hospital and is a founding member of the Chapter of Palliative Care Nurses, which organises continuing nursing education activities for palliative care nurses here.

She is also a member of the multi-disciplinary Palliative Care Service at KTPH, which handles up to 500 cases yearly.

Madam Sim subscribes to this daily mantra: "Everyone celebrates a birth. When a baby is born, he is not alone. So even in the worst circumstances, no one should die alone."

Work is a 10-hour shift spent in the hospital her patients and their loved ones.

She also makes it a point to pay her last respects to her patients who have died.

If given a chance to do it all over, Madam Sim said she would not do anything differently.

"Patient care is a priority for me. I will continue to look for ways to improve it. To me, healthcare is basic care.

"Dying patients do not ask for much. They won't ask you to extend care beyond what you can do.

"All they want is comfort and to be kept clean," she said.

Nursing is a lifetime of commitment, compassion

My first "experience" with a nurse was when I was five.

She was a dour-faced matron. She wasn't real but a character in General Hospital, a black-and-white soap on TV. I thought all nurses were like her.

Luckily, my impression of nurses took a 180-degree turn in my adult life.

I have spoken to several as a news reporter and found them to be different from my TV matron.

One of them told me: "Nursing is more than a backbreaking job. It is a vocation that requires a lifetime of commitment and compassion."

A recent fall in Borneo gave me the chance to put the statement to the test.

I sustained multiple fractures in my right leg and was evacuated to Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, where I underwent three operations to repair the leg, and had to stay in a ward for about a month.

In that month, I was relying on the nurses even for my basic needs.

Despite running ragged at times as the ward was full, never once did any of them scowl. They always had a smile no matter how hard or dirty the task.

In that month, I learnt about the sacrifices many of the nurses at Ward 12 had to make.

Ms Sumathi Govindaraj, for one, looks forward to night shifts, knowing she would be getting three consecutive days off after a five-day stretch. This so she can fly home to India to see her young children, left with her parents.

Then there is Filipina Paule Mary Grace Ang, who returned to work a couple of months after having her daughter. It must have been hard for her to leave a baby that young.

Their stories are repeated in the wards of the different hospitals here.

At the beginning of this year, I interviewed nurses from the National University Hospital about accusations a patient had made against them.

Throughout the interview, the three nurses peppered their answers with nice things about him, even though the patient was one from - dare I say it - hell.

He hurled vulgarities, even food trays, at them during his long stay. Despite that, the nurses continued to do their best in managing his health.

I recently came across this poster online: "Nurses are being scorned at for being late with the medicine. Yet, they are holding their bladder because they don't have time to use the bathroom or starving because they missed lunch."

Before you berate the nurse for not answering your call, please think: Would you be able to do her job?

I know I can't, and for that, I need to thank all nurses for doing what they do.

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This article was first published on July 31, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.